Science & Engineering Focus

Workforce Grant Fuels STEM Equity Initiative

Northwest Vista College has run a Space Teens Robotics Camp every summer since 2006. In 2009, the institution got a financial boost when the Texas Workforce Commission awarded 18 grants totaling $1 million to community colleges and universities statewide.

As one of the recipients, Northwest Vista received $15,221 for 24 scholarships for high school girls to participate in the robotics camp. “We want to stoke their interest in math and science, and the summer camp approach seems to be working well,” said Andrew Schuetze, director of the school’s robotics support center. Schuetze, who has headed up the summer camp since 2007, said the Texas Workforce Commission grant came about after the latter sent out requests for proposals in January for its summer merit program.

“The commission was looking for institutions that already had a summer program in place, and in the areas of science, technology and math,” Schuetze explained. “If the school was enrolling additional women and minority students, then it could apply for scholarships.” With its eye on enrolling 24 women in its space camp program, Northwest Vista applied for the scholarships in February and got its notice of award in April.

The grant money was awarded in May and set aside to cover the tuition for 24 high school students who would apply for the scholarships. Northwest Vista began marketing the program in late spring, and partnered with the Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas to help attract potential candidates.

“We were working with limited marketing resources, so we also used public community calendars and flyers in the San Antonio public library system to attract interest,” said Schuetze. “Even with that limited amount of marketing, we hit enrollment targets and even have a few students on a waiting list.”

Founded in 1995, Northwest Vista College has 12,000 students who take courses at its main site and several off-site locations in a traditional daytime classroom setting, as well as evening, Internet, hybrid and weekend courses. Most of the programs offered lead to a two-year associate degree or one-year certificate option.

In August, that student body also included high school girls who converged at the institution’s summer camp to gain hands-on experience designing, building, and programming robots. The 10-day camp comprises 60 hours of instruction and a “challenge tournament” at the end of the camp. “The students get into a little ‘head-to-head’ competition,” said Schuetze, “which is only not only fun, but it adds a bit of motivation and a lot of excitement.”

The camp also helps get students interested in careers that many girls mistakenly assume are too difficult or out of reach. By staffing the camp with female teachers and targeting the coursework and classroom setting to girls, Schuetze said the university can more effectively convey just how interesting and stimulating a STEM career can be. “There’s a lot of girl power going on during those two weeks,” said Schuetze.

Northwest Vista is just one of several Texas colleges benefitting from Governor Rick Perry’s Summer Merit Program, which encourages young people to pursue STEM-related careers. The Texas Workforce Commission worked with the Texas Engineering and Technical Consortium to help fund the summer camps. Members of the consortium include the Office of the Governor, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, businesses, and higher education institutions.

A state government agency charged with overseeing and providing workforce development services to employers and job seekers in Texas, the Texas Workforce Commission offers career development information, job search resources, training programs, and unemployment benefits. Part of a local/state network dedicated to developing the state’s workforce, the agency is funded by federal tax revenue.

This year, the Texas Workforce Commission’s $1 million in total statewide grants are allowing more than 1,800 students between ages 14 and 21 to attend summer youth camps that focus on STEM. Grant recipients include Austin Community College, which received $35,305 for 68 scholarships for two camps, including one that provides hand-on experience in computer programming and design, and another that explores biotechnology, computer security administration, and criminal justice topics; and Midwestern State University, whose $45,105 grant will cover 200 scholarships for two camps, including the At-Risk 9th Grader Transition Camp and the Junior/Senior Residential Camp in which participants focus on topics such as STEM-related careers or learn about environmental changes and renewable technologies.

Other universities that are using the Texas Workforce grants to introduce high school students to STEM careers include Prairie View A&M University, which received $29,470 for 20 scholarships for high school students to attend renewable energy camps targeting engineering, math, science, and energy issues; San Jacinto College, which got $123,732 for 250 scholarships for students to attend Energy Venture: Careers in Energy camps to promote STEM-related industry careers and facilitate research and education camps at Johnson Space Center; and Texas State Technical College at Waco, which is using $50,400 to pay for 80 scholarships for participants among four camps to gain hands-on experience in aerospace, supercomputing, welding, or Web site design.

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